School exclusion and the restorative justice solution

2 Mar 2018

 

School exclusions are on the rise

 

As an Associate with the RJ4All Institute, I felt passionate about the topic and hence this blog. During my London placement at the Institute, I found out that 6,685 young people were formally excluded from schools across England.[1] This figure is a 40 per cent increase from the previous three years. I also found out that one in two excluded pupils has a recognised mental health need, eight out of ten have a special education need or a disability, and excluded children are four times as likely to be from the country’s most economically disadvantaged families.[2] Unofficial exclusions are not accounted for in government reports. In their 2017 analysis, the Institute for Public Policy Research maintained that a ‘total of 48,000 pupils’ or ‘one in every 200 pupils in the country’ is ‘educated outside of mainstream education or in special schools at some point in the academic year’ and concluded that ‘it is clear that official statistics grossly underestimate the scale of the challenge of exclusion.’[3]

 

School exclusions have long-term consequences. While serving a disciplinary purpose within schools, their use can have follow-on effects on a larger social scale. Internationally, research consistently points to a ‘school to prison pipeline’.[4] It would appear that disengagement from education is a key indicator of future contact with the criminal justice system both at a young age and later in life.[5] School exclusions can be socially harmful, re-entrench disadvantage, and pave the way for future disadvantage too. It follows that they should reasonably be avoided or at the least, reduced.

 

The restorative justice offer

 

Since the 1990s, internationally, schools have been utilising restorative practices as an effective alternative to traditional disciplinary tactics. Restorative practices in schools are premised on ‘accountability, restitution and restoration of community’, employing ‘varying models of conferences, mediations and circles’, and centre on repairing relationships within schools, be they between students and teachers or within the school community.[6] It is in some senses antithetical to zero-tolerance style school discipline, focusing on drawing students in rather than punitively excluding them. Restorative practice is educational in a broader sense, encouraging students to reflect on, learn from, and improve problematic behavior and their relationship to their school community.

 

Its implementation in the UK has shown positive results. An evaluation of the use of restorative justice in schools in Bristol revealed improved attendance and reduced exclusion rates.[7] Similarly, in Barnet, local authorities found that schools trained in restorative justice reduced exclusions by 51 per cent. In comparison, schools without restorative justice had a 65 per cent increase in exclusions in the same period.[8] Outside the scope of formal disciplinary benefits, the Department for Education reported that whole-school restorative approaches are the most effective at preventing bullying.[9] Restorative Justice practice in schools can address disciplinary needs, and improves peer to peer relations.

 

But is it all straightforward?

 

A critical lens can also be applied to the use of restorative practice in formal education. Dorothy Vaandering takes issue with measuring the success of restorative practice in schools through reductions in expulsions, suspensions and other formal disciplinary measures.[10] When these are the desired outcomes of restorative practice, Vaandering asks, ‘is it really about establishing relationship based environments or is it being employed to better manage and control students?’[11] When utilised to this end, restorative practice seems to be less geared toward transformative interactions and more about enforcing traditional structures of power and hierarchy within schools and reinforcing student conformity. Take, for example, a circle conference where a student has broken school rules. The ultimate aim of the circle conference might be for a student to acknowledge their misbehavior and work to do better. But in this case, the school exists as an institution of power and the student is ultimately expected to conform to its standards. The school, as an institution, is not a genuine participant in the conversation- it has the final say and is the final locus of power. This perhaps echoes punitive disciplinary measures, albeit in the guise of a restorative conversation. However Vaandering argues that the solution to this apparent contradiction is not a reduction in the use of restorative justice, but further and deeper engagement with its ethos, understanding it ‘in broad pedagogical terms with implications for all facets and fields of education including how adults relate to each other and students, curriculum choices, evaluation and assessment, committee composition, the physical environment of the school and classrooms, and much more.’[12] The disciplinary aspects of restorative practice in schools perhaps are most transformative when they are but one component of an overall school culture.

 

The growing rate of school exclusions could have long-term consequences and demands our attention. Restorative practice offers a solution that keeps young people engaged in education and perhaps can even be educative in and of itself, encouraging responsibility and accountability within students. Rather than punitive, zero-tolerance discipline models, which do more harm than good, restorative practice, when utilized in an authentic and genuine way, recognizes student agency and can promote better behavior.

 

Join the RJ4All movement

 

Here at the RJ4All Institute, we believe that restorative justice (its knowledge, practices, research etc) should be available and accessible by everyone ... hence RJ - 4 All! Find out how to join our Associates team for paid work, publish in our peer-reviewed journal or access our publications. Your feedback is always welcome and we have a Facebook and Twitter account where you can also join the debate! 

 

Jemima Hoffman, RJ4All Associate

 

References

 

[1] Weale, S. (2017, October 10). School exclusions data in England only ‘the tip of the iceberg’. The Guardian, Retrieved from

https://www.theguardian.com/education/2017/oct/10/school-exclusion-figures-date-england-only-tip-iceberg

 

[2] Gill, K, Quilter-Pinner, H & Swift, D. (2017). Making the difference: breaking the link between school exclusion and social exclusion. Institute for Public Policy Research, Retrieved from https://www.ippr.org/files/2017-10/making-the-difference-report-october-2017.pdf

 

[3] Gill, K, Quilter-Pinner, H & Swift, D. (2017). Making the difference: breaking the link between school exclusion and social exclusion. Institute for Public Policy Research, Retrieved from https://www.ippr.org/files/2017-10/making-the-difference-report-october-2017.pdf

 

[4] Gonzalez, T. (2012). Keeping kids in schools: restorative justice, punitive discipline, and the school to prison pipeline. Journal of Law and Education 41(2).

 

[5] Gonzalez, T. (2012). Keeping kids in schools: restorative justice, punitive discipline, and the school to prison pipeline. Journal of Law and Education 41(2).

 

[6] Gonzalez, T. (2012). Keeping kids in schools: restorative justice, punitive discipline, and the school to prison pipeline. Journal of Law and Education 41(2).

 

[7] Restorative practice in schools. (2016). Retrieved from https://restorativejustice.org.uk/restorative-practice-schools

 

[8] Restorative practice in schools. (2016). Retrieved from https://restorativejustice.org.uk/restorative-practice-schools

 

[9] Thompson, F & Smith, P K. (2010). The use and effectiveness of anti-bullying strategies in schools. Department for Education, Retrieved from https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/182421/DFE-RR098.pdf

 

[10] Vaandering, D. (2010). The significance of critical theory for restorative justice in education. The Review of Education, Pedagogy and Cultural Studies 32(2).

 

[11]Vaandering, D. (2010). The significance of critical theory for restorative justice in education. The Review of Education, Pedagogy and Cultural Studies 32(2).

 

[12] Vaandering, D. (2010). The significance of critical theory for restorative justice in education. The Review of Education, Pedagogy and Cultural Studies 32(2).

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